[16 September 2009]
Hell doesn’t freeze over, the land is not engulfed in floods or flaming brimstone, and the participants are not struck dead by lightening. Neither do married straight people rush to divorce court to end their association with the now-sullied institution or reform their behavior to prove that they really are better than gay people. Instead, at least in the case of the Netherlands which has allowed gay marriage since 2001, gay people get married for much the same reasons as straight people while the marital behavior of straight people scarcely changes at all.
This is the conclusion of When Gay People Get Married, a refreshingly even-tempered and well-researched book by M.V. Lee Badgett, a Professor of Economics and director of the Center for Public Policy & Administration at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and research director of the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy at the UCLA School of Law. Badgett has a personal interest in the subject: in 2003 when she conducted the research she was unable, as a lesbian, to marry her life partner in the United States. So not only were they deprived of taking part in a cultural institution: they also paid more in income tax and could not take advanced of spousal coverage for health insurance. By contrast, Badgett notes that the Netherlands, where she spent a sabbatical year researching this book, legally recognized their relationship when it granted their temporary residence permits.
The Netherlands offers four legal options for couples, whether gay or straight. If they live together for a certain period of time, they are considered by the law to be a unit for concerns such as taxes, parenting, and immigration. They can sign a cohabitation contract to further formalize the relationship. They can register as partners and get almost all the rights and responsibilities of marriage, although registered partnerships are somewhat easier to dissolve than marriages. Or they can choose to be married.
Given this variety of choices, and without the societal expectation that they must get married, why do same-sex couples who love each other choose marriage over the other options? Badgett interviewed a number of Dutch couples and found that the reasons were similar to those regularly stated by opposite-sex couples: to provide security for children, to express commitment to their partner, to organize their legal and financial matters. A 2006 survey of Dutch married and registered partner couples also found that same-sex and opposite-sex couples reported similar motivations for choosing marriage: about 40 percent of each group reported primarily practical reasons, about 60 percent primarily emotional reasons.
So gay marriage seems to be good for gay people: how does it affect straight people? According to the conservative commentator Stanley Kurtz, it hastens moral decline by separating the act of procreation from the act of marriage. He points to decreasing marriage rates in the Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands, the increase in unmarried heterosexual couples, and increasing numbers of children born outside of wedlock as evidence that straight people take legal recognition of gay marriage as a sign that parenthood and marriage need no longer be connected.
But Badgett refutes these conclusions by looking at marriage rates in six countries, five of which have a long history of granting rights to same sex couples: Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, the Netherlands, and the United States. All six have seen a decline in marriage rates since the 1970s, but several of the countries which allow gay marriage have seen an increase since the ‘90s (while the US has not). She doesn’t attribute the increase to the influence of gay marriage (the trend started earlier) but points out that the historical data offers no support for Kurtz’s opinions. Similarly, divorce rates and nonmarital birth rates showed little change after the legalization of same-sex marriage
There’s a wealth of statistical data in When Gay People Get Married and it certainly belongs on the bookshelves of people concerned with the legal rights of gay people: unfortunately falsehoods such as those perpetuated by Kurtz are a regular facet of political discourse in the United States so you need to be ready with thoughtful, factual rebuttals. It’s also a model of clear academic writing which will be of interest to many in the social sciences. And it’s a good read as well, even if you have no professional or intensely personal interest in the topic: Badgett maintains a personal voice and presents lots of information about individuals and their experiences to balance out the statistics.
The uninformed, unscientific nature of public discourse about gay marriage (well, really about sexual matters in general) in the United States is frequently appalling. Here’s a suggestion to raise the tone: the next time someone starts off on a rant about all the horrible things that will happen if we legalize same-sex marriage, point out that the best evidence available suggests just the opposite. Smile sweetly, refer them to When Gay People Get Married, and retreat to a safe corner to watch the steam come out of their ears.